Parasitic Wasps, Biopolitics and the Tree of Life

Last week, we learned of a species of parasitic wasp, which through the transmission of a symbiotic virus produced in its ovaries to a caterpillar host, has actually been able to transfer parts of its genome into the host’s lineage.  The evolutionary history of this horizontal gene transfer, scientists estimate, dates back as many as 100 million years.  Apparently, certain species of moth and butterfly have appropriated the virally transmitted wasp genome, adapting it in order to provide some resistance against the common pathogen baculovirus, similar in structure to the symbiotic bracovirus produced by the wasp[1].

Genetically modified organisms occur in nature; the image of the atomic individual adapting solutions to problems presented to it by its environment, in competition for its survival, is problematized.  The genetic expressions of some species histories are characterized by reciprocity, if not outright mutual aid (most caterpillars die while performing the role of host.)  Thus, the orthodox conception of evolutionary adaptation, which problematizes the environment for individuals and reduces organisms to struggling organs of behaviour and which views populations as breeding pools, stands in need of some revision.

This orthodox adaptationist view is perhaps most recognizable in the image of the “Tree of Life”: the phylogenetic portraiture of evolutionary histories and ancestral relations, which so transfixed the early Darwinists, such as Haeckel…

Haeckel's Early Darwinian

Though Haeckel’s particular depiction is heavily dated, the figurative phylogenetic tree hangs over evolutionary biology even today – perhaps a consequence of modern Neo-Darwinism’s post-Enlightenment hangover.  Just this summer, a tremendous research project mutually supported variously by institutes of computational biology and natural or evolutionary history across the United States has resulted in the publication of the Open Tree of Life, a collaborative platform for the synthesis of phylogeny and taxonomy into a comprehensive tree-model[2] (whose “tips” number several orders of magnitude higher than those seen in Haeckel’s earlier depiction.)

But we have seen how parasitic wasps and archaeal viruses complicate this model, which establishes hard species barriers outside of ancestry and thereby obscures the possibility of genome fusion and horizontal gene transfer in evolutionary histories.  New phenotypic models that attempt to account for these phenomena have illustrated trees with deep and circular primordial root systems[3].  Further conceptual options include bushes, forests, and nets[4].  It makes sense to ask what kind of shape our tree is in: whether it is indeed standing strong despite countervailing evidence, or whether it is withering.

The tree-model depicts species histories as stratified and progressing (towards optimal adaptation vis-à-vis natural selection at the levels of genes, organisms, and/or cultures) as a result of competition within a shared environment.  Just as the Copernican Revolution brought about a shift in cultural consciousness, from a view of human existence under God as residing in His universal center to being just another speck in a godless sky, so has the Darwinian Revolution ushered in the era of biopolitics: the social and political being of humankind is seen as capable of reduction to biological explanations, and of subject to biological controls.  The competitive struggle for life results in genetic winners and losers emerging from the game of nature; the ethos of struggle and savagery is supremely vindicated.

The participation of the sciences in the early development of capitalism across Europe allowed science to serve “as an externality of the capitalist expansion, like roads and lighthouses, and as a way to solve particular problems”[5].  For the rising European bourgeoisie, the question of its own freedom was a problem for it, just as the question of the expression of freedom through ownership and exploitation is for it in the modern day of neoliberal capitalist globalization.  The early biopolitics thus opened as a theatre for the ideological ascendancy of a class rising to rule; this class was the bourgeoisie, who across Europe could wield scientific knowledge as an ideological weapon by which to unshackle itself from old feudal oppressions and religiosity.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was not widely supported at the time of its publication in 1859.  Historians of evolutionary history have long emphasized that that the reception of a theory is as much a result of the particular sociopolitical context into which it is introduced (or by which it is given birth), as it is of the theory’s actual content[6].  Major conflicts arose between the early evolutionary theory and church dogma, but these mostly gave way by the end of the century, having only recently resurfaced after points of disagreement fell out of favour even among theologians and other church scholars (as in the case of Christian fundamentalism in the United States, which has embraced anew Ussher’s infamous date for the creation of the Earth in 4004 B.C.)  Interestingly, this resurgence resembles an ideological counterrevolution from the fundamentalist Christian Right, against the ideologically bourgeois revolutions whose avatars are Copernicus and Darwin.  Who knows the essence of life, controls it.

In the modern theatre of biopolitics, life continues to be imagined on the basis of oppressive ideology: of “freedom” expressed only through individualism.  The “Modern Synthesis” of the Neo-Darwinists between evolutionary laws operating at the level of populations and the laws of classical genetics has gone so far as to reduce evolutionary histories to the competitive instincts of autonomous selfish genes.  But,

What of the autonomous individual organism, often the conceptual target of attempts to define life, and the thing that is assumed by models of evolution through competition and selection? To the extent that such individual autonomy requires just an individual life or life history, then it surely applies much more broadly than is generally intended by biological theorists. Countless non-cellular entities have individual life-histories, which they achieve through contributing to the lives and life-histories of the larger entities in which they collaborate, and this collaboration constitutes their claim to life. But – and this is our central point – no more and no less could be said of the claims of individual life histories of paradigmatic organisms such as animals or plants; unless, that is, we think of these as the collaborative focus of communities of entities from many different reproductive lineages. In much the same way, whatever sense we might try to make of the Dawkinsian idea of selfish genes, molecular replication is always, and has always been from the pre-cellular molecular community to the present, the achievement of ensembles of molecules, not of individual molecules…[7]

Prions, archaeal viruses, organelles and symbionts, parasitic wasps and mutant moths: these all challenge our notion of the evolutionary tree, of the reduction of life and lineage to individual life histories, and of the characterization of evolutionary progress as through competition instead (and to the exclusion) of collaboration.  What if the Tree of Life, instead of revealing the ultimate elucidation of the ascendancy of (some) humans towards freedom and progress, resembled another outmoded Enlightenment model?

Petrus Camper's Racist Model of Human Intelligence

Petrus Camper, in the late 18th century, studied the various human races and placed them in a hierarchy, with whites at the top, in his model of a correlation between the angles created by certain facial features with intelligence (whites were held to be closest to the ideal, represented by classical Greek statues, while blacks were seen as barely distinct from apes.)  Racist science, although in decline, has existed and will continue to exist in real contexts of racial oppression.  Classist science has also existed and will continue to exist in the context of class struggle, but it is reinforced by the neoliberal management of research institutions in advanced capitalist countries, where scientific knowledge is itself transformed into a commodity.

The fetishism of biotechnology, genetic determinism, no doubt, is one of the most important ideologies of biocapitalism. It declares the omnipotence of the gene, which not only prescribes the fundamental vital movement, but also internally determines the evolution of culture, so any physical and mental purpose can be achieved through the intervention on the “blueprint of life” and the subjugations of bodies. Ultimately, “life” is equated to “gene,” then reduced to the carrier and slave of gene.[8]

Biology is not merely the stage of the discovery of life.  Biopolitics invites us to consider biology as a space of Becoming, as a space where the human being is free to define her living as a social organism.  We can also treat this space as a space of Becoming into the Being of living ecologies that transcend the immediate experience of our spatiotemporal bondage.  Furthermore, this space can be seen as freely imagining the functioning of organisms within a body politic: be their vital force competitive, collaborative, or perhaps a sublation of the two.

The current age of biocapitalism has sought to restructure political rationality through the hegemony of western reductive science over the imagination of life and livelihood.  Perhaps the sublation of the dialectic between competition and collaboration is one which invites us to understand more complex forms of life, such as diverse ecologies or even sociopolitical organisms, in terms of the complex reciprocal relations between parts and wholes; where each is understood as the negation of the other and neither is monopolized through the exertion of biotechnological extensions of the power of capital over all social and political forms of life.

[1] See “Recurrent Domestication by Lepidoptera of Genes from Their Parasites Mediated by Bracoviruses” (Multiple Authors) in PLoS Genet 11(9): e1005470. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1005470.

[2] See “Synthesis of phylogeny and taxonomy into a comprehensive tree of life” (Multiple Authors) in PNAS 2015 : 1423041112v1-201423041 (

[3] Rivera & Lake, “The ring of life provides evidence for a genome fusion origin of eukaryotes” in Nature, 431, 2004.

[4] Lucio Florio, “The Tree of Life: Philosophical and Theological Considerations” in Studia Aloisiana, 4(1), 2013.

[5] Levins & Lewontin, “The Commoditization of Science” in The Dialectical Biologist (1985).

[6] See, for example, Peter J. Bowler’s Evolution: The History of an Idea (3rd ed. 2003).

[7] Dupré & O’Malley, “Varieties of Living Things: Life at the Intersection of Lineage and Metabolism” in Philosophy and Theory in Biology 1:e003, 2009.

[8] Yu & Liu, “The New Biopolitics” in Journal of Academic Ethics 7, 2009.


Frozen Eggs for Working Women

The inspiration for this post comes from two sources.  First – today is International Women’s Day, a day most well suited for the discussion of issues related to gender equality, women’s rights, and the emancipation of women.  Perhaps the emancipatory talk seems radical.  Feminism is not a homogeneous critical stance; some feminists will be more radical than others.  But we must recall that International Women’s Day – actually, International Working Women’s Day – began as a socialist political event, proposed by Clara Zetkin of the International Women’s Conference that was linked to the Second International; and so, the historical roots of this day recall the emancipatory struggle, and the need to overthrow capitalism.  Second – it has been my intention since the recent inception of this blog to eventually discuss within it my thoughts on female egg cryopreservation.  I owe this blog site in part to Dr. Françoise Baylis, of Dalhousie University, who recently gave a talk on the subject at a conference where I spoke at in Toronto – the Ryerson Graduate Philosophy Conference.  Françoise used some of her time to impress upon us in the audience – mostly young graduate students and PhDs – the importance of blogging.  A philosopher must today be a public intellectual, and the public are predominantly engaging with the diverse sea of varying opinions on the Internet.  Ideas are only dangerous in numbers – or perhaps, zebra-like, we come under the protection of a shared formal reality against predation: stripes for zebras, emancipatory political realities for the underclasses (whatever your favoured class dichotomy).

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

These words, from the Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, are also inscribed on Marx’s grave.  Françoise shares in this view of philosophy.  After her talk, when pushed on the question as to whether the sorts of ethical quandaries which surface on her analysis of egg freezing could be resolved under a neo-liberal Capitalist democracy, she deferred commitment to any particular political ideology, but suggested an avowed belief in the demand placed on us to change the world.

Egg freezing is being sold to women as an instrument of gender equality.  It places itself immediately at the intersection of competing feminist perspectives.  Françoise gives seven arguments against egg freezing, in her original blog post (over here on Impact Ethics), which inspired the talk.  Two of them speak directly to systemic social issues, which – I suggest – represent challenges that can only be met by a revolutionary feminist perspective, that recalls the historical unity of the workers’ and women’s movements.  From this perspective, actual gender equality is possible only on the condition of an emancipatory politics that takes as its aim the struggle for the working class (the majority of whom, after all, are women).  Those arguments are Françoise’s fifth and sixth:

Fifth, normalizing egg freezing does nothing to correct the fundamental social injustice experienced by women in the workplace who are effectively forced to choose between having a career and raising a family. This is not a choice demanded of young men. The working assumption is that they can be fathers and productive employees.

Sixth, providing women with the option of egg freezing does not meaningfully expand women’s choices because it does nothing to ameliorate the context in which they must make decisions. The social context, which does not assume that women can be mothers and productive employees, significantly (and inappropriately) constrains the options they get to choose between.

Dr. Françoise Baylis, “Left Out In The Cold: Seven Reasons Not To Freeze Your Eggs”

Both arguments treat autonomy as (legitimately?) delimited by socio-cultural constraints, echoing a conception of liberty similar to that of John Stuart Mill, and never far from the orthodoxy of political philosophy.  Of course, these constraints are the result of material conditions imposed by the oppressive layers of society.  We shall return to material conditions with the sixth argument; first, we must take up talk of patriarchy, in the fifth.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels effectively treats the enslavement of women and the establishment of patriarchal gender-class relations in society as a product of the state and the notion of private property.  He embarks on an ethnography of pre-Statist cultures, pre-exchange economies, and argues that the prototypically bourgeois family unit is the result of a conception of private property, by which the man comes to identify the child (and thus the mother, as its bearer and caretaker) as his property, and through oppressive means (physical or ideological) continues to enforce his right onward throughout the annals of history.  This is not to diminish patriarchy to a mere epiphenomena of the imposition of State and class antagonisms; ideas have a material existence, and insinuate themselves in a very real way into social structures and institutions.  The socialist origins of the struggle for women’s emancipation have been repressed in the official histories; real victories of the women’s movement have been reduced and redescribed as victories in a woman’s right to upward mobility within a patriarchal society – this is the mostly petty bourgeois individualist feminism that focuses today on companies with women as CEOs and strong female Capitalo-parliamentary politicians.  Egg freezing is marketed to women on exactly this platform.  Bourgeois patriarchal ideology is insinuated in the context of the choice being offered, between career and family.  The “working assumption” in the fifth argument is just the patriarchal assumption related to the origin of private property and struggle along class lines in society.  The way to struggle against it is to challenge the assumption of the legitimacy of the authority of the oppressive layers of society; that is, to fight Capitalism.

The sixth argument speaks to the material conditions of production in Capitalist society.  The assumption that women cannot be both mothers and productive employees relates to the contradictions of a class society, whereby one in four are without work, and the remaining three have far too much of it (clearly I generalize).  The historical contribution of Capitalist society has been to elevate the means of production to the point that humankind is able to create surplus; however, the creation of surplus is utterly contingent on profit motive, and so scarcity is manufactured (the only bona fide ‘product’ of the bourgeoisie).  Beyond the point where I can invest further in technology to gain a productive edge on my competition, my only recourse as a boss is to lay off workers.  The Capitalist mythology relates the ever extending work day to the praiseworthiness of a Protestant work ethic – this is the ideology, perpetuated to the benefit of those blessed with work, and fortunate enough to work ever longer and harder.  The ideology decries any deviation from the all-encompassing importance of work.  A woman cannot be both a mother and a productive employee, because productive employees work at least forty hours a week – twice that, if you aspire to become more like the bourgeois feminist icons that remain after the historical reduction and revision of the socialist origins of the women’s movement to its contemporary friendliness to Capitalist ideology.   Those who deviate from this norm are stigmatized as being insufficiently dedicated to their professional lives, and so the mere expression in the professional world of a desire to shift priorities is treated as an affront to the ideological ethic.

Scarcity and surplus are two sides of the same coin, and this particular kind of coin exclusively fills Capitalist coffers – it is foreign currency in these parts.  “Scarcity and surplus” is a false dichotomy imposed on the means of production by free-market Capitalist logic.  A socialist alternative abolishes the distinction.  The productive capacity of the average advanced Western Capitalist state is more than strong enough to support a reduced workweek, even while significantly reducing unemployment.  The assumption that a woman cannot be both a mother and a productive employee is built into the social reality imposed under a Capitalist system – a woman who would like to reduce her working hours in order to become a mother is not sufficiently dedicated to her work to thrive under this Protestant work ethic ideology, and most women who would make this choice would find it places them in an almost impossible financial situation.  The way to struggle against this is to challenge the contradictions of Capitalo-parliamentary logic imposed as social reality on the means of production.

The emancipation of women is central to the struggle for the emancipation of all oppressed layers in society.  The recent introduction of egg-freezing as an instrument of gender equality, endorsed by major tech companies like Facebook and Apple as part of their health insurance packages for female employees, reaffirms the legitimacy of bourgeois Capitalist ideology.  It is congruent with the reactionary and revisionary history of the struggle for women’s emancipation, distilling the movement’s victories into a warped bourgeois-ified neo-liberal feminism, alien to emancipatory politics and inert with respect to true gender equality.  And so, with a final word of thanks to Dr. Françoise Baylis, I conclude my thoughts with a simple imperative (and the title of Françoise’s aforementioned talk at Ryerson): “Ladies, Don’t Freeze Your Eggs!”